Catherine Nicholson, Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance.
The appearance of Catherine Nicholson's Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance is an encouraging event for those who believe in the value of stylish, searching textual analysis that documents the cultural history of English and Englishness. Nicholson's central thesis, that 'in laying claim to eloquence ... English became increasingly strange to itself' (p. 2), is consistently and convincingly argued through a richly suggestive series of close readings and comparisons that make her study as enjoyable to read as it is illuminating.
The idea of literary English as a social and political tool--and as the cultural vehicle for sixteenth-century England's 'emergent nationalism' (p. 3)--is well established. But by tracking the development of English eloquence through a diverse range of literary landscapes --including pedagogical treatises, pastoral poetry and prose romance--Nicholson reveals the contradictions and divisions in the very texts at the vanguard of this supposed campaign for cohesion. In doing so, she skilfully recovers for the modern reader the self-conscious, sometimes prodigious, strangeness of texts and authors long since embraced as canonical.
The quarrelsome reader will nevertheless find things in Nicholson's book to satisfy his/her temperament and most of them can be found in the first two chapters. Though her treatment of the material is generally persuasive--her treatment of Sir Thomas Elyot's fantasy of replacing mother English with nursemaid Latin is particularly rich--it is in these early arguments that her analysis most often falters. In particular, the relationship between geographical place and social or cultural 'place' in locating English eloquence is one Nicholson repeatedly circles back to but never quite succeeds in establishing. As a result, this quest feels simultaneously frustrating and oddly generous: there are some particularly satisfying readings that Nicholson's argument seems to drive towards but never explicitly reaches, as if to give her reader's intellect rather than her often excellent analysis, the credit for arriving there. The interesting psychological similarity between George Puttenham's fascination with the explicitly spatial limits of the pattern poem and his fussy desire to define English as the language spoken 'in London and the shires about London within lx. myles' (p. 66) is one relatively trivial example.
Ironically, one feels that Nicholson's argument might itself have needed anchoring more securely in a geographical and cultural place. In theory, her discussion has a quite specific setting in sixteenth-century England but in practice it feels unmoored. Thomas Wilson's theories of eloquence blur too easily into those of Aristotle. The latter's are so loosely applied alongside Wilson's to other texts that the particularity of the early-modern English struggle to find a euphonic national voice is sometimes lost.
Nicholson's generally admirable focus on specifically literary or linguistic concerns also occasionally feels blinkered. In her illuminating treatment of contemporary responses to John Lyly, for instance, Nicholson reminds us of Sir Philip Sidney's caustic remarks on the 'euphuistic' casting of 'sugar and spice upon every dish' (1) and his complaint that such 'straunge things cost too deere for my poore sprites'. (2) Yet as part of a discussion about taste, excess and utility, these words seem to demand comparison with the contemporary debate about architectural fashions that would shortly reach a poeticised peak in Ben Jonson's 'To Penshurst'.
Nicholson, though, is at her own eloquent best when locating the three literary giants of her study--John Lyly, Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe--within her landscape of homely lexical fields and outlandish stylistic monuments. Her Lyly, like his Euphues, seems a slippery character, sternly insisting on a proper regard for the limits of English's homely fabric in a sentence that he willfully stretches far beyond the bounds of correctness. And even as Lyly expands English to accommodate the universal, multiplying its range of rhetorical possibilities by stuffing it with commonplaces, he emphasises the importance of locality, of a place that is not common to all and of exclusivity rather than inclusivity in language's role in forming communities. English, Nicholson's Lyly seems to suggest, might not have the broad scope of Latin but this is a limitation to be cherished: by making English strangely expansive, he reveals the social utility of its homely bounds.
Nicholson's Spenser is less wily than her Lyly but similarly indirect. For him, establishing English as England's proper language is to be achieved by making it look foreign. Nicholson's analysis of the Shepheards Calendar reveals the linguistic self-consciousness that underpins the whole poem: E. K.'s commentary positions English as a language that needs explication and turns the tables of literary learnedness by giving English words Latin glosses. Meanwhile, Colin Clout's past and present poetics are constantly mediated and pondered on by the other speakers: if he is the quintessentially English poet--and by association an exemplar of the English language--his (and its) past and future are posited as an appropriate subject for scholarly consideration. By distancing his reader from English, by giving it the exotic trappings and the momentary unintelligibility of an acquired rather than a 'natural' tongue, Spenser demands for it an increased amount of intellectual and cultural consideration.
Her Marlowe is, as we might expect, rougher and tougher. For him, establishing English as a great language means making it one by force, forging it into a weapon with which great energetic violence may be done to the formal constraints of classical style. Tamburlaine is not just a conqueror of armies, he is a destroyer of literary convention. He remakes metre and repurposes blank verse to express an aggressive, acquisitive individuality rather than (as in the case of Roman poetry) the ordered restraint of civil society. Marlowe is perhaps the author least transformed by Nicholson's treatment but her location of his hero within a curious contemporary vogue for Tamburlaines more than makes up for it.
Nicholson concludes, appropriately, with William Shakespeare, deftly arguing that in Henry's famous speech at Agincourt, 'the familiarity [he] invokes is ultimately a form of estrangement', which 'inscribes a boundary between himself and his neighbors' (p. 172). For Nicholson, this position locates Henry and Shakespeare alike 'at the privileged and perilous extremity of linguistic community' (ibid), speaking a vernacular that is at once inclusive and divisive. But if literary English was not, in fact, straightforwardly cohesive, what of the 'emergent nationalism' (p. 3) it supposedly facilitated? This question, of what the social consequences of the triumph of common English over elite Latin might be, is perhaps the most frustrating of those with which Nicholson's discussion flirts but does not engage. When she draws attention to debates about whether it was more 'eloquent' to 'speake as the common people do' (3) or in the dialect used 'in the kings Court', (4) the material seems to demand a discussion of how class and community divisions were maintained socially, spatially and linguistically in an increasingly inclusive England (and English). In her closing treatments of Henry's 'privileged ... linguistic community' and Marlowe's individualistic violence (p. 172), Nicholson seems to press towards these issues and one wishes she had reached them. However, this is a compliment as much as a complaint: that Uncommon Tongues is as provocative of readerly greed as it is of further thought is a testament to the high standard of its style and argument alike.
University College London
(1) Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetry (London, 1595), sig. K4.
(2) Philip Sidney, Syr P S. His Astrophel and Stella (London, 1591), p. 2.
(3) Roger Ascham, Toxophilus: The Schole of Shoting, in English Works, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge, 1904), p. xiv.
(4) George Puttenham, Arte of English Poesie (1589), pp. 120-1.
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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